Øya 2023 review: Blur, Boygenius and new beginnings ring out

Ever had festival fatigue? You know, where the five-hour bar queue, ant-like appearance of the distant band, the masses of bros and the 13th pint of piss to hit you in the head leave you wanting to hang up your wellies and Netflix-and-chill until you slide off this mortal coil? Well, there’s this festival in Norway that may hold the cure.

Shunning the copy-and-paste line-up of so many festivals, Oslo’s Øya has an ever-growing reputation for its environmental initiatives, gender and genre diversity, small but impressive green site in a city centre setting, and pitting some massive names up against local and rising talent. Even with a freak weather warning on arrival, this year was no exception.

Having kicked off the “Night Vision edition” of her ‘Solar Power’ tour a few nights prior in Ireland, Lorde’s new set is a far more minimal affair than the sun-chasing colourama of her previous era. This one is more fitting for speeding between clubs and afterparties in the witching hour than heading to the beach. To tap a recent meme, this Lorde seems a little more Oppenheimer than Barbie.

“These are the only shows I will play this year,” says Ella Yelich-O’Connor of her handful of summer festival dates, telling the gathered ravers that Norway was among these lucky locations because she “loves it” and “feels like dancing”. Oslo responds in kind as we bop through the machine-gun run of closing bangers ‘The Louvre’, ‘Supercut’, ‘Ribs’ and ‘Green Light’ – some last shots to keep us intoxicated until Lorde’s big night out returns in 2024 (we hope).

The hedonism rumbles on as Swazi-born South African DJ Uncle Waffles rattles the Klubben tent, and London’s Shygirl shakes off the damp from some sodden fans over at Hagen with the pumping darkweb art-rave of cuts from her recent Mercury-nominated album ‘Nymph’. “Thank you for giving me the stage,” she beams as she introduces ‘Cleo’, “and what better way to thank you than by taking my main character moment?” Take it, and many more. With the blessing of Björk, here’s a star with real staying power.

WizKid’s opening night main stage headline slot takes the Afrobeats revolution and turns it into an arena spectacle, but Oslo it seems are largely danced-out. Well, aside from the pogo-ing cult who greet returning new wave icons Devo back over in Sirkus. It’s a spritely demonstration of the game-changing wonky post-punk that helped the geeks to inherit the earth, and they still know to whip it – and whip it good.

Day two and we’re hungry for something new – so we head out to one of the many showcase gigs on offer throughout the city this week with Metteson performing at the already-iconic Munch Museum. A burst of colour and pure emotion, this rising Norwegian star has a fitting home in this venue and alongside the artist it’s named after. With a band decked out in costumes designed from motifs of sea life and nature, Metteson’s highly-choreographed show will go on to draw yet more comparisons to Christine & The Queens and Perfume Genius, but there’s a direct and bewitching idiosyncrasy to the way he explores the more dizzying and ecstatic heights of pop that sets him apart.

Back on site and ARY also flies the Nordic flag as she ascends the line-up with her sleek and sultry pop-noir, while across the field Amyl & The Sniffers are in their element as the ultimate festival band. They’ve got that perfect balance between standing tall as no-fucks-given punks while also proving endlessly entertaining – like dancing through a bar-room brawl with snarling Stooges-esque raw bangers and an endlessly watchable live show. “You Nordic fucks are blonde as fuck,” says bassist Gus Romer in an attempt to spotlight and honour the “one per cent” of his fellow gingers. “You’ve got two belly buttons too, right?” chuckles frontwoman Amy Taylor, raising another in a set filled with smiles.

On the main Amfiet Stage, past headliner and Nordic Queen of dramatic baroque pop Susanne Sundfør battles some mucky sound issues to deliver exactly that – with the highly influential artist and regular Röyksopp collaborator inviting a 14-piece band on stage to deliver the more gut-wrenching cuts from her 2023 album ‘Blómi‘ and 2015 dance-indebted career high ‘Ten Love Songs’.

Sløtface live at Øya 2023. Credit: Helge Brekke
Sløtface live at Øya 2023. Credit: Helge Brekke

Fellow festival regulars Sløtface then blow the roof off the Sirkus tent by drawing one of the stage’s largest and certainly more feral crowds of Oslo’s young, punk and beautiful to see the new incarnation of the band. Now a solo vehicle for singer Haley Shea, Sløtface’s six-piece live band offer up a riff-laden rush of constant pit-inducing hooks, real heart and arena euphoria – with a sax or two thrown in for good measure – in an experience that falls somewhere between Metric, Boygenius, Weezer and Bruce Springsteen. “I’ll be so pissed when I drop dead before I get to the good part,” sings Shea on ‘Happy’. Look alive, an Øya headline spot could be next.

Thursday ends with a masterclass in topping the bill from the kings of summer 2023: Blur. Now well into their reunion run for stellar 2023 comeback album ‘The Ballad Of Darren’, the Britpop heroes are a well-oiled machine running on boisterous festival fuel and artfully selected sideways moves. There’s a grit to newbie ‘St Charles Square’ that sits so perfectly alongside ‘There’s No Other Way’ and ‘Popscene’, with the band gleefully in the knowledge that they’re in the finest of fettle. Even ‘Trimm Trabb’ lands like a FIFA Soundtrack classic.

“You’ve been very mellow,” smiles Damon Albarn after ‘Coffee & TV’ (no shit! Welcome to Norway!). “We’ve been very mellow too up to this this point, but I’m taking my jacket off now”. Whoops and hollers fill the air as they tear into ‘Country House’. Not sure how many present know the meaning as they scream back “JACK-A-NORY”, but it’s a delight to see.

The post-Blur hangover makes Snail Mail a pretty start to Friday, with her lo-fi vibes so laid-back they almost border on shoegaze at times. Caroline Polachek then lifts spirits to an almighty high as she makes her Norwegian debut with her soaring and theatrical delivery of ‘Desire, I Want To Turn To You’ reciprocating a very real and emotional connection with those who have been waiting for this. The day’s anticipation boils over, however, as Boygenius see the sun down with their first ever European show.

Pheobe Bridgers with Boygenius at Øya 2023. Credit: Anna Lerheim Ask
Pheobe Bridgers with Boygenius at Øya 2023. Credit: Anna Lerheim Ask

Running out to Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’, a true rockstar revelation follows. Fresh from joining Christian Lee Hutson at his Øya spin-off show, Phoebe Bridgers speaks of how her previous solo appearance here saw her small but dedicated turnout somehow moshed to the maudlin sounds of ‘Funeral’. Knowing that there was a hardcore contingent worth returning for, she along with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker are greeted by one of the biggest crowds of the weekends as the three-headed supergroup beast shred, howl and balladeer their way through the majority 2023’s ‘The Record’ and their 2018 self-titled EP.

Invading the crowd, offering a Mötley Crüe stadium live show and life-affirming sing-alongs to ‘$20’ and ‘Strong Enough’, Boygenius prove the week’s highlight and arguably should have topped the bill on Friday. The main stage headliner of Sweden’s Håkan Hellström is massive around these parts, despite being a nightmarish mum-magnet mesh of Robbie Williams, The Feeling and Lou Bega. We’re sad we missed the sweet summer punk-pop of promising Norwegian upstart Lille Venn for this, but we live and learn.

While at Øya, it’s always the homegrown talent that sets it apart – especially crowning a Norwegian act as headliner on the closing day every year. For 2023, that honour falls to Sigrid. Opening with the multi-million streaming star-reaching mini pop-rock opera of ‘It Gets Dark’ with a stage show to match, the packed-out field totally belongs to her tonight.

Other highlights come with the previous NME Awards live favourite Griff collaboration ‘Head On Fire’, the dance abandon of ‘Suckerpunch’ and live debut of new single ‘The Hype’ – a song that sees her question if she lived up to the expectations of an old flame, the music and the world. There was certainly a lot of that. “Rumour has it she’s the future queen of pop”, NME noted when Sigrid made her Øya debut back in 2017, before she went on to win the BBC Sound Of poll and lead a new gen of feel-good and authentic chart stars. For tonight, she can take that title.

At the very least her set captures all that’s great about Øya Festival: a beautiful, intimate, forward-thinking and friendly setting for good times, world firsts, and a taste of tomorrow from one of the music capitals of the world. Øya effortlessly just gets festivals right, every time.

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